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Designing a Future That Works

This article was written by Alex Steffen in October 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." - Winston Churchill, speaking of the turning point battle of El Alamein,1942

Al Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize symbolizes more than just a head-nod towards some eco-fad -- it shows that sustainability has finally moved from the outskirts of activism to the most central halls of authority. Concern for the planetary future is now as credible as it is possible to get. The beginning of the struggle to save ourselves from ecological catastrophe has come to an end and we can begin to see the outlines of the next stage of the struggle.

Those of us who've spent our careers advocating a saner approach to the future can be forgiven a few moments of smugness, for these are sweet days. There is no longer any reasonable debate about whether or not we need to move with all possible speed towards a different way of living on this planet. To argue the contrary is now to prove oneself morally bankrupt.

Of course, the morally bankrupt can still be found in some numbers in the corridors of commercial and political power, but we don't need to worry too much about them. They are the leaders of the past: their influence wanes by the moment, as leader after leader steps up to call for big changes.

Consider, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's call this week for a global system of carbon regulation and pricing to be in place by 2012:

Merkel insisted that only by establishing limits on carbon dioxide output per individual around the world -- suggesting about 2 tons per head -- could the fight to stop global warming be effective. ... Her suggestion would mean drastic cuts: Germany has a carbon dioxide output of some 11 tons per person per year, while the U.S. is at around 20 tons per person.

Similar proclamations -- which would even five years ago, been perceived as beyond the pale of realistic debate -- can be heard from corporate CEOs, retired generals and religious leaders. (These conversions are coming none too soon. There's been a spate of disturbing news of late, including NASA climate expert Jim Hansen's latest paper (PDF) estimating that we are moving towards an increase of six degrees Celsius rather than three, and that drastic observed effects (like the rapid melting of the polar ice cap) may be evidence that we are on the verge of hitting climate tipping points.)

Winning the debate doesn't mean we're winning the war, yet. But the fight has changed. Now that we have an increasingly broad consensus that we face a major planetary crisis, we can start in on the next step. Now we move from spreading the word to setting the agenda, from handing out pamphlets to drawing blueprints. The future we're inheriting is broken. People all over the world know it. Now it's time to design a future that works.

This campaign will be no easier.

For one thing, in order to create real solutions, we have to avoid certain traps, like carbon blindness. It's going to be difficult to help the world see more clearly that climate change is a symptom of our lack of sustainability, not its cause. We must find ways of showing that climate chaos, environmental degradation, economic inequity and political corruption are all part of the same problem. We simply cannot solve any of those problems without working to tackle them all.

Others will call for "moderation," which in this context actually means totally insufficient half-measures. Because we know that we're dealing with the hard reality of merciless trends here, we'll have to be strong and demand more than timid steps and vague pronouncements. We'll have to demand commitment to the bold timelines necessary and hold our leaders accountable to them. To take baby steps now is to fail, however good our intentions.

We'll also have some work to do explaining why the developed world needs to lead the way. We in the North have a moral responsibility to go first, of course, both because we bear the historical guilt for the situation in which we find ourselves and because others have the same right we do to expect reasonable prosperity and we will not earn their cooperation (which we need) without acknowledging that. But we also face the practical reality that it is our governments, universities and businesses that have the research capacity to forge the new solutions people everywhere will need. If we want the whole world using these new solutions by 2050, we'd better start inventing and implementing them here, now.

But there's an even more fundamental challenge facing us, I believe: we don't know what the future we want to build looks like.

We are coming to understand the kinds of radical challenge we face -- cutting our impact on the planet on the planet by perhaps a factor of 20 over the next 25 years or so, while delivering sustainable prosperity to many more people -- but the truth we rarely speak in public is that we really have no idea how to get there.

We don't know what our cities will look like, how our energy will be created and delivered, how we'll get from place to place, how our food will be grown, how we'll manufacture our consumer products and make our clothing, or even how we'll recreate and relax. Yet we will need revolutions in each of these fields -- and in the cultural interactions between them, the policies regulating them, and in the businesses which deliver them.

Up to now, we have been a movement whose purpose was to raise awareness of the dangers of a broken future; education and persuasion will continue to be part of our job, but now our central mission must evolve into creating a networked movement of people and institutions who are working together to imagine, describe, plan and build a sustainable society. We have shown people the need for change; now we need to become capable of mass-producing it. Our business now is vision.

It's common, among certain of our allies, to try to avoid seeming like radicals by reassuring people that a sustainable world won't be all that different from the world we live in now. It's time for us to stop saying that.

It's time for us to stop saying that because it's not true: the kind of world we will be building will have to include what are, from today's perspective, some truly massive changes. We won't be living the same way in a couple decades, either because we've undergone some relatively profound transformations, or because the consequences of failing to change our ways will be coming home to roost in a series of utterly predictable disasters.

But it's time to stop downplaying the changes needed for another reason: if we do our jobs right, life will get better. The systems we currently rely on don't just destroy the environment, they limit our happiness. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. We know it is possible to create lives which are not only profoundly more sustainable, but more prosperous, comfortable, stylish, healthy, safe and fun. If we do our jobs right, a bright green future will be downright sexy.

Our task now is to envision those lives, envision them with such practical clarity that we gain the power to build them.

Getting to a bright green future is going to involve quite a long journey. The storms of bad news won't stop coming in the meantime, and we can expect the seas to be choppy along the way. But this will also be a grand adventure and we can take heart in the message the Nobel committee has sent: look to your sails, the tide has turned.

Al Gore, the Nobel Prize and the End of the Beginning is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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